Incremental Gains: Lima's Tenacious Squatters' Movement

April 10, 2008

Throughout the last half century, tens of millions of poor Latin Americans have illegally seized land. Such invasions are usually followed by many years of struggle, during which communities strive to build a functioning neighborhood with reliable services. Some settlements eventually become attractive working-class neighborhoods; looking at them today you would never guess how they began. Yet when many people picture urban Latin America, two classic images come to mind: throngs of barely employed street vendors packed into congested streets, and the ubiquitous shantytowns blanketing the periphery of major cities. These stereotypical images tell us little about the impact of the informal economy on the lives of low-income urban dwellers.

Famous for its entire districts that began as massive illegal land invasions, Peru’s capital city, Lima, offers a window into the enduring legacy of informality. With a population of almost 9 million, Lima is the region’s fifth largest city and is often viewed as a sad caricature of all that is wrong with urban Latin America: sprawling, polluted, and poor.1 To both observers and residents, Lima seems incapable of overcoming these fundamental obstacles, as new poor migrants continually arrive, their needs multiplying and complicating the challenges facing government leaders.2

Yet a glance at the streets of downtown Lima makes clear that many poor Peruvians are unsatisfied with the status quo. Groups of low- and no-income protesters frequently fill the plazas outside government buildings. On a busy day, so many different organizations march on popular protest sites like Congress and the Presidential Palace that each group must essentially wait in line for its turn to demonstrate.

Examining mass mobilization in Peru is especially important nowadays, as Bolivia and Ecuador play host to massive, headline-grabbing mobilizations that in recent years have deposed and installed multiple presidents. In her work on these three Andean countries’ social movements, Donna Lee Van Cott highlights one of the clearest contrasts among them: the presence or absence of a strong indigenous identity as the primary ideological frame.3 Indeed, it is difficult to think of the millions of Ecuadorans and Bolivians who have mobilized recently without picturing an explicitly indigenous movement. Yet in Peru—where more than 45% of the population identifies itself as indigenous—no such movement has emerged.

For this reason, one Peruvian organization constitutes a compelling case study: the United Front of the Peoples of Peru (Frente Unitario de los Pueblos del Perú, or FUPP). About two thirds of the group’s 12,000 members are indigenous, according to FUPP president Alcides Mejía, yet the group’s leadership and membership have never sought to capitalize on this.4 Even FUPP delegations from Peruvian hotbeds of indigenous mobilization like Ayacucho do not emphasize their indigenous identity.

Furthermore, the FUPP’s organizational trajectory illustrates the immense challenges facing urban movements, and its incremental successes illuminate some of the limited but important possibilities for change in Peru.5 Founded in 1998, the FUPP and its mission emerged from several hundred indebted families in southern Lima who had grown frustrated with the government’s failure to enforce a series of laws passed under President Alberto Fujimori.6 These laws purported to cancel debts incurred in the 1980s and 1990s, when former shantytown dwellers took out loans from the government to install electricity and water infrastructure in their homes.7

Although never fully implemented, these laws were predictably popular with the poor, since they signaled a tacit acknowledgment that the state had failed to provide its citizens with basic human services. The laws, passed by Congress and signed by the president with much fanfare, came to little—Peru’s labyrinthine bureaucracy and corrupt political culture combined to unevenly distribute the benefits. Many of the settlers who formed or later joined the FUPP were poor homeowners who received none of the debt relief they were promised.

Although FUPP members’ neighborhoods began as typical shantytowns—with cardboard walls and jerry-rigged electrical hookups—10 to 20 years of incremental development has resulted in neighborhoods with simple but permanent houses that have all basic services. Furthermore, although these communities were largely founded through illegal land invasions, almost all FUPP members now hold legal title to their homes.

But this is not a story of upward mobility. Although most the organization’s members have attained a degree of stability in both housing and employment, that stability is fragile. FUPP members are rarely found among the poorest ranks of informal workers, but underemployment and economic uncertainty still leave many unable for pay the monthly dues, which amount to about $4 per year. And many FUPP members live under the constant threat of bank foreclosure if they fail to keep up with high-interest loan payments.

Speaking at a FUPP assembly in 2001, a Lima member described how she had made interest payments for 15 years on a $900 loan. Her 180 monthly payments had totaled more than $5,000, yet she still owed the original $900. Thus, although FUPP members live in slightly better economic circumstances than Lima’s poorest sectors, they remain poor and on the border between abject poverty and slightly more stable work and housing.


Villa el Salvador, in Lima’s southern cone, is home to about one third of FUPP members, as well as the organization’s national headquarters. The district began in 1971 as a massive land invasion that turned an empty stretch of desert into a small city of 25,000 almost overnight. In the following 36 years, Villa el Salvador’s population grew to 350,000. In contrast to the chaotic layout of many invasion-founded districts, Villa is known for its grid of avenues, city blocks, and neighborhoods. This orderliness coexists, however, with persistent land invasions that frustrate city planners and complicate efforts to deliver basic services to everyone. Even in 2007, Villa’s outward growth is driven exclusively by illegal invasions.

This juxtaposition of chaotic land invasions within an orderly district also shapes Villa el Salvador’s reputation around crime and citizen security. Although Villa is generally safer than other poor districts, its notoriety as a hub of land invasion contributes to an often unwarranted perception that it is a dangerous place to live or visit. To be clear, poor neighborhoods in Villa do experience more burglaries, robberies, and even arsons than Lima’s middle-class districts, but by and large Villa is nothing like the crime- and violence-ridden shantytown image popularized in films like Brazil’s City of God.

Studies of Lima support the observation that, compared to other districts dominated by invasion-founded neighborhoods, Villa el Salvador is an example of exceptionally robust political participation and commitment to democracy at both the municipal and neighborhood levels, where thousands of residents serve as elected representatives on innumerable grassroots committees. At the same time, within the district’s neighborhoods, housing development patterns and persistently high levels of economic hardship echo similar patterns found in other invasion-founded districts like Comás in northern Lima, El Agustino in the east, and Villa María del Triunfo, adjacent to Villa el Salvador.8

The FUPP’s central goals emerged from its national congress in 1998, when hundreds of delegates came together to express grievances against the government and build a coalition. A remarkably focused agenda emerged, featuring four core goals: (1) suspending notices of foreclosure for failure to make payments on loans for installing service infrastructure; (2) canceling debts to the Bank of Materials and other government agencies; (3) granting tax credits to victims of excessive fees imposed by the Bank of Materials, various municipalities, and other government agencies; and (4) refunding fees paid to the National Housing Fund (Fondo Nacional de Vivienda, or FONAVI) for infrastructure that was either never built or was installed but paid for by the homeowner, not FONAVI.

The details of the FUPP agenda distinguished the group from the hundreds of Peru’s other popular movements. Whereas most movements’ demands shift from, say, street paving one month to piped water the next, the FUPP has consistently maintained its four-point agenda for almost a decade.9 Furthermore, FUPP members live in neighborhoods that are in their 10th or even 20th year of development; their relative success, together with their list of objectives, adds to the impression made on government officials that the FUPP is quite sophisticated.

Although demanding refunds from FONAVI may be the FUPP’s most ambitious goal—getting cash payments from the government can be nearly impossible—the demand for compensatory tax credits is the most unusual, since FUPP members are so poor that they generally pay few taxes. According to the organization’s leaders, even modest taxes constitute a significant burden for many FUPP families, which must sometimes go without food. The organization’s leaders also believe that asking for tax credits is a smart public relations move, because it portrays their members as hard-working, tax-paying citizens.

FUPP objectives were never framed with respect to the indigenous identity of a majority of the membership. In interviews, FUPP leaders and members exhibit an awareness of racism and discrimination against darker-skinned Peruvians, but still choose to rely exclusively on an economic framing of their grievances and demands. They view contemporary mobilizations in Bolivia and Ecuador as inspiring but see no reason to invoke ethnicity in their own struggle.

To pursue their ambitious agenda, FUPP members employ a fourfold mix of tactics, including protest marches, a militant form of lobbying, membership outreach, and low-budget propaganda. Viewed as their most important and successful tactic, well-organized protest marches have long been a staple of FUPP activity. Between 1998 and 2007, the FUPP mobilized almost 30 times, averaging three marches per year, with each one drawing between 1,000 and 4,000 participants. The targets of these marches included Congress, the Presidential Palace, the Ministry of the Presidency, the Ministry of Housing, and, most frequently, the Bank of Materials. FUPP members often converged on a single Lima protest target, but sometimes the group simultaneously launched multiple marches against, for example, different branches of the Bank of Materials throughout Peru. Often these marches yielded no immediate gains, but beginning in 2002, some of them successfully forced government agencies to meet with the FUPP.

Although the FUPP originally tried to lobby government officials and bureaucrats through traditional channels, most offices refused to meet and stonewalled FUPP leaders. At least two Congress members (one from Alejandro Toledo’s Perú Posible party and the other from Alan García’s APRA) have worked with the FUPP, but neither was able to advance the group’s agenda. Determined to meet with key decision makers at the Bank of Materials, the FUPP developed a strategy of holding government buildings and banks “hostage” until delegations were permitted to enter and meet with officials.10 Such negotiating sessions (at least five of them in the 2002–07 period) have been productive. Although the catalyst of each such meeting was a disruptive throng of thousands surrounding a building and (at least initially) refusing to allow employees or customers to exit, the resulting meetings strongly resembled routine lobbying sessions, with the FUPP president, lawyer, and other delegates presenting legal documents and meeting for an hour or more with officials.

These meetings have yielded incremental gains. Although the FUPP never won all its demands, each such meeting resolved a small number of individual cases where either certain debts were found to have been paid or a settler proved conclusively that FONAVI had done nothing for services that had been paid for. The cumulative effect of these gains was minimal—perhaps 1% of the FUPP’s members have resolved their debts—but the fact that the FUPP seems to win something at each meeting sustains members’ enthusiasm. Furthermore, movement leaders believe that many members would have lost their homes already if not for the FUPP’s ongoing campaign. Though it is difficult to gauge how many members’ homes have actually avoided or delayed foreclosure due to FUPP pressure, this is nonetheless an important rallying point.

The FUPP’s last two tactics include outreach and modest public relations campaigns. The organization’s thousands of members, spread across many Lima districts and Peruvian provinces, are always searching for new recruits. The group’s budget, however, indicates that almost all funds are spent on protest marches (e.g., renting buses, advertising), whereas outreach relies on word of mouth. Propaganda not aimed at increasing turnout for protests is also minimal, with photocopying costs considered too expensive to widely circulate pamphlets and other documents. The FUPP does occasionally receive free radio and TV coverage—invariably on the day of a major mobilization.


Several insights can be gleaned from examining the FUPP’s history, objectives, and tactics. First, although the group’s decision not to capitalize on its indigenous identity may seem like a missed opportunity, the movement’s limited but significant successes suggest that in the urban context of Lima, there may be benefits to a more inclusive identity that attracts members based on economic factors rather than on ethnicity. Second, although Peru is not in the same league as Bolivia and Ecuador in terms of broad national mobilization, the FUPP’s demographic scope—across Lima districts and multiple other provinces—shows that building coalitions on a national level in Peru is possible. Third, while the successes have been quite modest, they have been accomplished with incredibly limited resources, relying on a motivated and energetic base whose members struggle to pay $4 a year in dues.

These are promising signs for other urban popular movements in Lima and other Latin American cities. While the FUPP’s successes should not be overstated, its chief victory has been developing a robust base of participation and an innovative blend of tactics that hold promise for the future. It remains to be seen if the FUPP will ultimately succeed in the more substantive goal of canceling the debts of most or all of its members.

Paul Dosh is assistant professor of political science at Macalester College. He is writing a book about urban popular movements in Peru and Ecuador.

  1. According to Peru’s 2005 census, the metropolitan area of Lima is home to 8.6 million people (including the port city Callao’s 800,000). In a country of more than 28 million (according to a 2006 estimate), Lima composes one third of the national population (Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informática).
  2. In Lima, government is highly fragmented, with confusing and often overlapping jurisdictions among government agencies. Similar in structure to a U.S. metropolitan area that includes dozens of small cities, Lima is divided into 43 districts (plus six districts in the adjacent city of Callao), each with its own democratically elected mayor and city council. Lima is also governed by an elected metropolitan government, but the state dominates. See Henry A. Dietz and Martín Tanaka, “Lima: Centralized Authority vs. the Struggle for Autonomy,” in David J. Myers and Henry A. Dietz, eds., Capital City Politics in Latin America (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2002), pp. 193–225.
  3. See Donna Lee Van Cott, From Movements to Parties in Latin America: The Evolution of Ethnic Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2005).
  4. Each “member” is a head of household, so the FUPP’s actual numbers are far greater than 12,000 if spouses and young adults are also counted.
  5. I draw upon three types of data for the FUPP case study: (1) the FUPP archives, including legal documents, internal documents, news clippings, and propaganda; (2) my own observations at FUPP meetings and mobilizations in 2001–02; and (3) interviews with FUPP leaders and members, as well as government bureaucrats and elected officials in Lima in 2001, 2002, 2005, and 2007. I conducted all the interviews except for the most recent interview with FUPP president Alcides Mejía Díaz in 2007. This was conducted and transcribed by my research associate, Jesús Valencia. Other key interview subjects included FUPP treasurer Julio Polo Burga and former Villa el Salvador mayor Michel Azcueta. For reasons of space, I do not include a full list of interview subjects here.
  6. For readers familiar with Lima, FUPP membership bases are located in the districts of Chorillos, Lurigancho, San Juan de Lurigancho, San Juan de Miraflores, Villa el Salvador, and Villa María del Triunfo, as well as the port city of Callao. The FUPP also draws members from smaller cities in the provinces of Arequipa, Ayacucho, Cajamarca, Cuzco, Huánuco, La Libertad, Lambayeque, and Moquegua.
  7. The stated rationale for each of these laws was to provide relief to debtors living in extreme poverty, but given their highly uneven implementation, some view the laws as straightforward efforts to buy votes.
  8. Several examples of Villa el Salvador’s history of political participation are cited in Henry Dietz, Urban Poverty, Political Participation, and the State: Lima, 1970–1990 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
  9. From 1998 to 2007, FUPP documents and propaganda sporadically mentioned other objectives, including cheaper telephone rates, government-funded job creation programs, and popular participation in agencies that operate services. Yet these goals seem like window dressing—perhaps either eye-catching demands to attract marchers or the idiosyncratic result of the FUPP’s lengthy, highly inclusive town hall meetings. But if these meetings resulted in the occasional addition of miscellaneous demands, virtually all organizational resources were devoted to the core agenda of canceling debts.
  10. The FUPP is highly confrontational, but it rejects violence. At one 2002 FUPP assembly, a movement leader proposed that the marchers carry clubs “for self-defense,” but his suggestion was shouted down as contrary to the FUPP’s history of nonviolent activism. The FUPP does employ controversial tactics, however, like blockading exits and negotiating for the exit of those inside, but none of their actions has resulted in any injuries. In a sense, the FUPP consistently pushes its luck to the limit, and then backs down at the last minute before tensions and scuffles with police erupt into outright violence.
Tags: Peru, Lima, squatters, pueblos jovenes, land seizures, Villa El Salvador

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